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Ailing Pope John Paul II Cuts Back Christmas Schedule - 2003-12-22

After a quarter-century as leader of the world's Roman Catholics, the ailing Pope John Paul II is cutting back on his usually hectic Christmas schedule. Christmas is one of the pope's busiest times of the year. Faithful come to Rome from all over the world to take part in midnight mass at the Vatican. Those who can't, follow his words on television around the globe.

The pope does not like to disappoint his flock. But in recent years he has had to cut down on some of his appearances. He no longer celebrates mass on Christmas Day but continues to read out his message to the world.

Applause welcomed the pope on the last Sunday before Christmas as he appeared at his study window overlooking Saint Peter's square. The pope urged the faithful to bring peace and harmony to Christmas.

Catholics have expressed concern about the pope's health. He suffers from Parkison's disease, and his speech is increasingly halting and his walk unsteady.

But Sister Maria Lucia Tamilia says the pope has great stamina. "I am concerned," said Sister Tamilia, "because I see a suffering person but it gives me great serenity because I also see a man who, despite his great suffering, gives hope to every man he encounters." She said he is an inspiration for everyone.

Crowds at St. Peter's square are expected to especially large this Christmas, because many fear this will be the pope's last.

Tim Hill, an American who will be attending midnight mass with his family, said he realizes this is an opportunity which may not come again.

"It's very special for me just to be able to see him, maybe for the last time," said Mr. Hill. "This will be the fourth time that I've seen the holy father and it would be sad, but we talked about it when we made our reservations to come over, that he might not make it to this Christmas."

The pontiff's Christmas schedule this year has been curtailed to celebrating the midnight mass on Christmas Eve and delivering his Christmas message. He will not be ordaining bishops on the Feast of the Epiphany or baptizing children, as customary, in the Sistine Chapel.